Hospitals need media relations to drive reputation

US News & World Report just released its annual list of best hospitals. The list, hugely popular with consumers, is the source of much angst among the nation's hospitals. And for good reason - these rankings are major drivers of reputation.

US News & World Report just released its annual list of best hospitals. The list, hugely popular with consumers, is the source of much angst among the nation's hospitals. And for good reason – these rankings are major drivers of reputation.

To understand the elite nature of the list, you only have to look at the numbers. Of 4,852 hospitals in the US, only 152 made the 2010 list – a status to which many aspire, but few achieve.

Every hospital would like to be singled out as one of the nation's best, but the criteria drastically narrow the field. To initially qualify, a hospital must meet certain standards, including academic affiliation, advanced medical technology and volume of specialty procedures. Once a hospital makes this cut, it is measured by quantitative and qualitative criteria including mortality data, nurse-to-patient ratio and reputation.

The data criteria are, of course, fixed and objective. Yet reputation, which is highly subjective, constitutes 32.5 percent of the evaluation, as interviewed physicians are asked to name the top five hospitals with respect to their own clinical specialties.

Great reputations are developed over time and, once achieved, they are very hard to dislodge. Centers such as Johns Hopkins, the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic are so well-established it's almost assumed they will be cited by the interviewed physicians. With only five choices, physicians are likely to name a few of these mega stars automatically, restricting choices in well-deserving but lesser-known facilities.

Having an established reputation is the best guarantee of scoring well in the lists' reputation category – such is the power of reputation it has a halo effect. Several years ago, consumers were asked to name the best school of dentistry in the mid-Atlantic region; the overwhelming response was Johns Hopkins. The only problem? Hopkins doesn't have a school of dentistry.

For hospitals, the issue of reputation is the chicken and the egg dilemma. You need one to get the other.

Influencing the reputation portion of these rankings starts with a commitment to telling the hospital's story. Reputations are built over years by word of mouth from patients, but outstanding patient care and clinical research will not build reputation unless that story is told through mass media. Most premier hospitals have strong media relations programs that tout clinical trials, technology advances and other news of their institutions, and they are increasingly using online strategies and social media to target consumers and physicians.

The Internet has hugely expanded outlets for healthcare news and medical information. In a recent survey, physicians reported 85% of their patients brought Internet health information to appointments. Physicians are increasingly getting more information online and less from medical journals, spending an average of eight hours a week on physician communities such as Sermo and WebMD's Medscape Physician Connect.

Like consumers, physicians are also influenced by the mainstream media – they read The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other national news outlets. One recent study revealed that physicians get more healthcare news from consumer outlets than medical journals.

The takeaway is that developing a national news profile is one of the most powerful ways a hospital can build its reputation. Most hospitals at the top of these lists understand this, and they are vigilant in maintaining their reputation through aggressive news outreach.

For hospitals aspiring to make the cut, the advice is simple: do good work and make sure to trumpet that work in national media outlets.

Nancy Hicks is a senior vice president at Ketchum's Washington, DC, office, and serves as associate director of Ketchum's North America Healthcare Practice.

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